For a few days in early April, Toronto was at the epicentre of environmental history exchange.
Around 600 delegates from six continents and 20 countries joined Canadian colleagues at theAmerican Society for Environmental Historyconference, held at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. The ASEH is the largest annual meeting of environmental historians in the world. The theme of this year’s ASEH conference was “Confluences, Crossings and Power.”
The seeds of this project were sown years ago at a NiCHE Executive meeting. Bringing the ASEH to Canada for a second time (it met in Victoria, BC, in 2004) would represent a capstone event for the networking activities of NiCHE. I volunteered to lead the bid to bring the conference to Toronto. I was most pleased by the enthusiastic collaboration of colleagues first at York University, then at other universities in the Greater Toronto Area. McMaster University in Hamilton played an absolutely key role, quickly promising $12,000 in support for the conference. Trent University and the University of Toronto came on board as well, and we had a stellar organising team that included many long-standing ASEH participants: Richard Hoffmann, Anders Sandberg, Andrew Watson (all from York), Ken Cruikshank, H.V. Nelles, Michael Egan (all from McMaster), Stephen Bocking (Trent) and Laurel MacDowell (University of Toronto). With financial support from NiCHE and the different universities, we raised over $35,000 from all the institutions.
This support allowed two key innovations. Led by Anders, and with help from Ken, Stephen and myself, we published a volume of environmental history essays that provided textual form to the nine planned field trips, always a highlight of the ASEH conference. This publication, Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region, contributes to the understanding of the region as well as providing a series of walkable, cyclable or drivable tours that illustrate important features of the environmental past of the area. In addition to the nine field trips associated with the conference, another seven chapters provide an itinerary to explore other important themes of food distribution, waste water management and ornamental parks. Second, we wanted to provide a copy of this publication to each delegate. With the support of NiCHE, we did so on a USB key that includes as well the conference programme and a series of the Nature’s Past podcasts. We also printed copies for sale to delegates who preferred a physical version of the book. This book will be made available to Toronto area bookstores and in due course through sources such as Amazon as an e-book. It can also be obtained from the Wilson Institute for the Study of Canada at McMaster University.
Along with Oxford University Press, the Wilson Institute sponsored the opening reception on Wednesday evening in the beautiful Imperial Room. The following day, everyone moved upstairs to the Ballroom, location of the publishers’ display and the posters. Twenty-two publishers’ representatives, including four Canadian university presses, displayed the latest research in environmental history.
The heart of the ASEH conference is, of course, in the sessions and the plenary talks. One hundred scheduled sessions over the three days provided papers on a range of topics from the culture of mountain biking, chemical diplomacy, climate change in seventeenth-century Mexico, zombies, and the implications of space debris. Delegates presented their papers in the geographically and historically themed meeting rooms of the Fairmount Royal York. The British Columbia room boasts, for instance, not only apparently ersatz totem poles by also an original EJ Hughes waterscape.
On Thursday, ASEH President John MacNeill presented his address on “Arnonld Toynbee: World Environmental Historian?”, a reflection on the environmental interpretations of the most popular historian of the 20th century in the English-speaking world. The conference plenary focused, appropriately enough, on one of the most important environmental issues facing North Americans, the use and transport of oil from the oil sands of northern Alberta. Historical geographer Graeme Wynn, cultural theorist Imre Szeman, sociologist Sara Dorow and film-maker Warren Carriou, provided different perspectives on our economic and cultural reliance on oil and the specific issues facing exploitation of the bitumen in northern Alberta. In the question and answer period, one delegate from Arkansas provided another reaction, sharing local concerns about the recent oil pipeline rupture in Mayflower, AR.
On Friday, the field trips spread out across the Greater Toronto Region, enjoying the bright sunshine but chilly temperatures to explore the Lower Don Valley, the Leslie Spit, the location for the new national park at the Rouge River, the McMichael Collection, Queer Toronto, indigenous Toronto, a walking tour in the area near the hotel, and Hamilton Harbour. Graduate students returned to the Imperial Room for their reception and raffle. Because of the generosity of NiCHE scholars, publishers, and graduate student association sponsors, almost all graduate students in attendance left with a prize of a scholarly book or another item.
A final busload of brave delegates left the hotel very early on Sunday morning towards Niagara Falls and the Niagara wine region.
As the conference sessions wound down on Saturday evening, and we headed into the final events, the poster session and the awards ceremony, we found our registration desk area displaced by an upscale circus-themed charity ball. We had juggled with many key issues in environmental history over the previous three days, but we now had to run a gauntlet of jugglers to make it to the final event. Somehow, for the organisers at least, the circus theme put the events of the previous few days into perspective.
Colin M. Coates, is Canada Research Chair in Canadian Cultural Landscapes at York University, a member of the NiCHE Executive and chair of the local organising committee, ASEH 2013, Toronto.